by Carl R. Weinberg
In an Op-Ed piece published on November 11 in the Washington Post, columnist Marc Thiessen, leaning heavily on historian Alan Guelzo, argues that Critical Race Theory is a danger to America because of the ideas that allegedly spawned it. Thiessen learns from Guelzo that the ideological culprits are Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the Frankfurt “critical theory” school of Marxism, and current-day antiracist theorists. These thinkers sinned by rejecting Enlightenment reason and embracing unreasonable ways of explaining the world based on “race, nationality and class.” These modes of thinking, Thiessen contends, “led to the rise of ideologies that have killed millions,” referring presumably to the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. Taking issue with Ibram Kendi’s endorsement of “antiracist discrimination” to end racism, Thiessen instead enlists Martin Luther King, Jr. to demonstrate how color-blind Enlightenment ideals expressed in the America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and not critical theory, were the basis of the civil rights crusade. Summing up his message and quoting the title of an influential book by Richard Weaver, a conservative intellectual many of his readers may not have heard of, Thiessen warns that “Ideas have consequences.”
A familiar refrain
Since I’ve heard that phrase before—the text on the back cover of Red Dynamite describes my analysis of the creationist “ideas have consequences strategy”—Thiessen got my attention. But I’m tempted to say to Thiessen, invoking Inigo Montoya from the film Princess Bride, that the phrase does not mean what he thinks it means. Of course, ideas do have consequences. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to write this piece or to spend ten years working on Red Dynamite. But a brief examination of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948) demonstrates the wisdom of a materialist twist on Weaver’s title: ideas are consequences. In this case, Weaver’s ideas and those who have deployed them are fundamentally a product of conservative movements seeking to uphold the established power relations in society and fight off desperately needed social change. The ultimate meaning of “Ideas have consequences” is sit down and shut up. Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have approved.
Who was Richard Weaver, and what was his book— dubbed the “fons et origo [source and origin] of the contemporary American conservative movement”—all about?1 Born in North Carolina, Weaver was briefly won to the cause of Socialism as a student at the University of Kentucky but then turned sharply right.2 In the wake of World War II, now a relatively obscure English professor at the University of Chicago, Weaver wrote his book to account for what he called the “dissolution of the West.” He improbably located the origin of this centuries-long decline in the pronouncement by William of Ockham (of Ockham’s Razor fame) in the fourteenth century of the doctrine of philosophical nominalism. By arguing that our ideas (or names for things) are mere conveniences, Occam denied that they reflect a transcendent “universal” essence.
Richard Weaver, conservative intellectual and author of Ideas Have Consequences (1948)
For Weaver, Ockham’s big idea had disastrous consequences. “Man” was now the source of truth rather than God. From this point forward, society spiraled downward. First there was the rise of empiricism. Then there was “materialism.” By the nineteenth century, Darwin and Marx had combined to explain that we were the product of our natural and economic environment. “Man created in the divine image,” Weaver lamented, “was replaced by man the wealth-seeking and –consuming animal.”3 Moving onto the twentieth century, Weaver, the former Socialist, gave the “modern Communists” a back-handed compliment by lauding the “logical clarity” and “intellectual rigor” they deployed in the service of building a new world, unmoored by eternal absolutes.4
William of Ockham (1287–1347) and his philosophy of nominalism were responsible for the beginning of the “dissolution of the West” according to Richard Weaver.
What made this new world so disturbing to Weaver was its lack of social hierarchy. No longer did the “man of knowledge” rule over his inferiors. Social groups, he complained, had moved “nearer equality.” Rather than living in a proper society of “various levels,” the masses were living in an uncivilized “animal relationship” to all others. “Leaders will not lead,” Weaver complained, and “servants will not serve.” Weaver warned that the growing feeling of “resentment” by the lower classes “may well prove the dynamite which will finally wreck Western society.” Alluding to Communism and allied movements, Weaver defended the use of the term “subversive” to describe “forms of a collectivism that rest on a materialistic philosophy.” In place of “equalitarianism,” Weaver called for a return to the “aristocratic virtues.” It was fine to call for equality before the law, but equality of condition between young and old, or “between the sexes”—this would not do. Consistent with these sentiments, Weaver’s subsequent writings converged with the Southern Agrarian poets who celebrated the virtues of the antebellum slave South.5 All in all, Weaver’s book lends weight to political theorist Corey Robin’s definition of conservatism: “a mediation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win in back.”6
Weaver’s ideas have been consequential for the modern creationist movement. In the summer or 2013, I had the opportunity to interview John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) in Dallas, Texas. Before we sat down and turned on my digital recorder, I ate lunch with John and his brother, Henry Morris III, the now departed namesake of their creationist celebrity father, who founded ICR and co-authored the young-earth creationist blockbuster The Genesis Flood (1961). At one point in our lunchtime conversation, Henry III looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, knowingly, “Ideas have consequences.”
By that point in my research, I was well aware of the phrase and what he meant by it. For the Morrises, Weaver’s phrase connoted the creationist logic that if you teach young people they are descended from animals, they will act in a bestial manner. In this vein, creationist geologist George McCready Price argued in 1925 that evolutionary ideas were pulling the rug out from under capitalist civilization, paving the way for animalistic immorality and political revolt, an explosive combination he labeled “Red Dynamite” (foreshadowing Weaver’s own use of this explosive metaphor).
In his 1973 anti–abortion rights tract Slaughter of the Innocent, anticommunist activist David Noebel used the same political logic to raise alarms about the radical feminism and the sexual revolution. “You can not continue to teach the nation’s youth that man is an evolutionary animal (Darwinianism) without the youth acting like animals—especially after listening to the big beat pounding animal morals into their minds,” wrote Noebel. Their loins fired by rock music, young people were thoughtlessly having sex “like dogs and cats.” Widespread demand for legal abortion, according to Noebel, was the logical and tragic result.7 In more recent years, the young-earth creationist group Answers in Genesis, of Creation Museum fame, has held evolutionary science responsible for school shootings, abortion, gay marriage, Hitler, and more.
Answers in Genesis attributes a range of alleged social, moral, and political evils to evolution.
Bringing ideas down to earth
Though neither Marc Thiessen nor Alan Guelzo is a young-earth creationist, as far as I know, their purported genealogy of Critical Race Theory does share an idealist political and philosophical logic with conservative Christian antievolutionists. In Thiessen’s causal scheme, (as in Weaver’s), ideas seem to float above material reality, cruising through the centuries, doing things of their own accord, and making people do bad things. Ideas are all-powerful. Ironically, today’s defenders of CRT have performed a similar trick. Rather than acknowledge the real problems and real-life material consequences in public schools (and diversity training sessions) of the deeply pessimistic perspective promoted by actual CRT founder Derrick Bell, they seem to believe that anti-CRT sentiment is solely a product of the racism that, á la the 1619 project, was born in the “very DNA of this country” and will forever be encoded in our political genotype. Thankfully, this version of “ideas have consequences,” like Richard Weaver’s, is profoundly mistaken.
Frank S. Meyer, “Richard M. Weaver: An Appreciation,” Modern Age 14 (Summer 1970): 243. ↩
Fred Douglas Young, Richard M. Weaver, 1910–1963: A Life of the Mind (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995), 25–35, 61–76. See also Paul V. Murphy, The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 151–77. ↩
Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 1–6. ↩
Ibid., 9. ↩
Ibid., 36, 38, 41–43. Richard Weaver, The Southern Tradition at Bay (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1968). ↩
Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 4. ↩
David Noebel, The Slaughter of the Innocent (Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Ministries Publications, 1979), 39. For more on Noebel, see Carl R. Weinberg, *Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2021), 188–96, 252–56. ↩